Ms. Collins is off today, so we have Mr. Blow and Mr. Kristof. In “The Obamas, Race and Slights” Mr. Blow says we can talk about data on white-black bias until we are blue in the face. At some point, it simply comes down to what people believe and how they feel. In “Welcome Back, Cuba!” Mr. Kristof says sending in gunmen to liberate the Bay of Pigs failed, but perhaps we’ll do better with diplomats, tourists and investors. Here’s Mr. Blow:
The president and the first lady added their voices this week to the raging conversation on race following the protests that erupted in the wake of grand juries not indicting police officers who killed two unarmed black men — Michael Brown and Eric Garner.
In an interview with People magazine, Mrs. Obama recalled a trip to Target during which “the only person who came up to me in the store was a woman who asked me to help her take something off a shelf. Because she didn’t see me as the first lady, she saw me as someone who could help her. Those kinds of things happen in life. So it isn’t anything new.”
Could the Target shopper who asked Mrs. Obama for help simply not have recognized her and needed, presumably, a taller person’s assistance? Sure, in theory. Or could the encounter have been disdainful and presumptuous, a manifestation of some inherent bias? Sure, that too could have been the case.
Could there have been some combination of those forces at play? Also possible.
The truth is, we don’t know. The lady asking for help might not even know. We are not always aware of our biases, let alone are we always able to articulate them. And people can sometimes be hypersensitive to bias when they are submerged in it.
All we know is that Mrs. Obama questions the encounter and has misgivings about it. For her, it’s a feeling. Others might hear this story and feel that Mrs. Obama possibly overreacted or misconstrued the meaning of the request.
But that is, in part, what racial discussions come down to: feelings. These feelings are, of course, informed by facts, experiences, conditioning and culture, but the feelings are what linger, questions of motive and malice hanging in the air like the stench of rotting meat, knotting the stomach and chilling the skin.
As Maya Angelou once put it: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
There are facts, to be sure, reams and reams of social science that confirm the persistence of racial bias in all areas of society. The cover of the January/February 2015 issue of Mother Jones magazine stamps in white letters on a black cover: “Are You Racist? Science has the Answer.” Barely visible, printed in large glossy black letters on the matte black paper is an enormous, all-caps “YES.”
The cover story includes data from the Race Implicit Association Test on the Project Implicit Demonstration website. (Project Implicit was founded by scientists at the University of Washington, Harvard University and the University of Virginia.) The data showed that whites and East Asians had the strongest pro-white/anti-black biases. These biases were also strongest among those 65 and older, although those 18 to 24 ranked second among the age groups (this strand of bias among college aged people deserves its own study). And politically, these biases were greatest among the moderately conservative and weakest among the strongly liberal. But we can talk about data on white-black bias until we are blue in the face. At some point, it simply comes down to what people believe, and yes, how they feel.
It is into this morass of feeling that we must step when discussing race. That is why interpersonal race discussions can feel so strange, messy and uncomfortable — we must confront the amorphousness and the mythologies. We must value the questions even when we cannot answer them. We must allow ourselves to empathize with other people’s feelings.
And we have to allow people — including the First Couple — to talk about their experiences, and then try to put those experiences into a broader context.
Mrs. Obama also said her husband “had his share of troubles catching cabs” when living in Chicago, and the president, for his part, said: “There’s no black male my age, who’s a professional, who hasn’t come out of a restaurant and is waiting for their car and somebody didn’t hand them their car keys.” He indicated this had happened to him.
Mrs. Obama added another incident: “He was wearing a tuxedo at a black-tie dinner, and somebody asked him to get coffee.”
But the president wisely differentiated these slights of privilege — these upper crust indignities that might sound foreign and frivolous to people who don’t regularly dine at restaurants with valet service or attend black-tie dinners — from slights that are more common and consequential:
“It’s one thing for me to be mistaken for a waiter at a gala. It’s another thing for my son to be mistaken for a robber and to be handcuffed, or worse, if he happens to be walking down the street and is dressed the way teenagers dress.”
This gets at another subtlety of race discussions: graduations of severity. There is a difference between the rarefied racial slight and the raw racial assault, but the idea, the intellectual, rational and moral deficits from which they spring, are the same. And the feeling is the same, whether you are donning a black tie or a black hoodie.
And now that we are having these conversations, some people are getting worried. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released this week found that “just 40 percent of Americans believe race relations in the U.S. are good — the lowest share registered by the poll since 1995.”
Some might see that as depressing, but I look at it optimistically. I see the result of vociferous truth-telling and justice-calling, in the face of which fairy tale obliviousness is reduced to ashes. We are being confronted and afflicted by the realities that though racial progress has been made on many measures, that progress isn’t permanent or perfect. Race remains a frame for inequality in this country.
And we can no longer dismiss racial discussions as victimhood affinity. Decrying systemic victimization is not synonymous with embracing the identity of the eternally victimized. On the contrary, identifying, condemning and relentlessly fighting oppression is part of the path to liberation.
How does all this make you feel? A little uncomfortable? Good!
And now here’s Mr. Kristof:
Is there any element of American foreign policy that has failed more abjectly than our embargo of Cuba?
When I hear hawks denouncing President Obama for resolving to establish diplomatic relations with Cuba and ease the embargo, I don’t understand the logic. Is their argument that our policy didn’t work for the first half-century but maybe will work after 100 years?
We probably helped keep the Castro regime in power by giving it a scapegoat for its economic and political failures. Look around the world, and the hard-line antique regimes that have survived — Cuba and North Korea — are those that have been isolated and sanctioned. Why do we think that isolating a regime is punishing it, rather than protecting it?
Few initiatives failed more catastrophically than the American-backed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961. Yet while an armed invasion failed, I bet that we would have done better if we had permitted invasions of tourists, traders and investors.
American tourists in Havana are already asking plaintively why Wi-Fi is so scarce — or why the toilet paper is so rough. We need hordes of them, giggling at ancient cars held together with duct tape, or comparing salaries with Cubans.
Sometimes the power of weaponry fades next to the power of mockery.
When I was a law student in the early 1980s, I financed a visit to the Soviet Union by smuggling in bluejeans and Walkmans and selling them on the black market. My Russian customers regarded my goods with reverence, and me with jealousy. The craving for cool consumer goods was perhaps as much a factor in the toppling of the Soviet empire as the yearning for voting rights.
Our economic embargo hurt ordinary Cubans, reducing their living standards, without damaging Cuban elites. The embargo kept alive the flames of leftism in Latin America, creating a rallying cry for anti-imperialists.
The United States, over the years, considered bizarre assassination plots against Fidel Castro, like an exploding seashell. There were also proposals to humiliate him by drugging him with a hallucinogen, or using a depilatory to make his beard fall out. Our tax dollars at work.
Senator Robert Menendez, a Cuban-American Democrat, objects that “President Obama’s actions have vindicated the brutal behavior of the Cuban government.”
Likewise, Senator Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American Republican, denounces the approach as “based on an illusion, on a lie, the lie and the illusion that more commerce and access to money and goods will translate to political freedom for the Cuban people.”
The critics are absolutely right that the Cuban regime is both oppressive and economically incompetent. But wishing unpleasant governments away doesn’t have a great track record.
My views are shaped by having lived in China for a time in the 1980s when the country was opening up to the West. Waves of foreign visitors were deeply unsettling to Chinese who believed in the system.
In 1983, a British friend of mine returned to his hotel to find his contact lenses missing from their case. He asked the hotel staff, and one cleaner explained proudly that he had washed out the contact lens case in the sink.
An uproar followed. Soon all the Chinese staff in that hotel learned, with wild surmise, that Westerners had access to tiny, invisible glasses that they could put on and take off. They absorbed this with astonishment and envy.
Senator Rubio is right that encounters with new technology and wealth are not immediately lethal to authoritarianism. After all, the Chinese Communist Party is still solidly in place, and even imprisoning the great Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo.
Yet these encounters are if not lethal, at least corrosive. China has become less monolithic because of its interactions with the world. There’s no political pluralism in China, but there is economic and cultural pluralism. Maoist days are forever gone.
Likewise, I’m struck how often North Korean defectors have told me that they had a change of heart simply by visiting China or Russia and seeing themselves patronized as backward.
During the North Korean famine in the 1990s, the government there tried to console the starving population with television programs about the dangers of overeating, including a documentary about a man who ate too much rice and exploded. At the time, North Koreans would stare at the rare visiting foreigner, especially anyone a bit rotund, with a transparent range of emotions: jealousy, awe, and perhaps a bit of wariness in case of detonation.
So bravo for the new Cuba policy. Sending in gunmen to liberate the Bay of Pigs failed. Maybe we’ll do better with swarms of diplomats, tourists and investors. Preferably plump.